by Justin Birckbichler

“I have no desire to see these kids as anything but my students. I don’t want to go to their birthday parties, soccer games, or anything. I want to teach them and go home.”

Shocking quote right?

Winggirl and Mr. B
Winggirl and Mr. B
Her end of year quote: “You flew the whole way with me”

This was not something that came from my lips; it was a statement that a fellow teacher made to me the other day. I highly respect and like this fellow educator, but was very taken aback by this statement. Between this quote and last week’s #TMchat, I feel that a post on connecting with each student individually was timely.

I do not currently have children. Well, that’s not true. I have 48 kids. None of them are biologically related to me, but I think of my past two years’ classes as my own kids. Students often ask me who my favorite student is. I always respond, “You are.” Their eyes light up as they exclaim, “Really?!” to which I respond, “You are absolutely one of my 48 favorite students of all time!”

Let’s be honest, as teachers, we are inclined to have some students who may be seen as our “favorites” because they do the work, are well mannered, and not academically behind. I’ll admit that sometimes I’ve fallen into wishing all my students were like that. Just as immediately, I regret thinking that. All students are unique and we have a responsibility to love and support them equally.

Working with Jack after school. Notice his beaming smile.
Working with Jack after school.
Notice his beaming smile.

Allow me to share the story of Jack (all names in this article will be changed.) He was actually removed from one fourth grade class and put into mine because the other teacher couldn’t stand his “disrespect.” Jack lives down the street from me. Last year, he switched schools and witnessed his five-year-old cousin pass away in a car accident. However, I never saw an ounce of disrespect from him. Did he complete his work in a timely manner? No. But do you blame him? School is a place where he was supposed to feel safe, and his teacher constantly sent him into the hall for “disrespect” (which I later found out was just refusal to do worksheets.) When I volunteered to take him in, I told my principal that my goal for him was not going to be academic; I wanted him to come to school with a smile and learn to love learning.

In my classroom, he thrived. No, he did not become a model student and did require some discipline. His background made him rough around the edges, but I never gave up on him. By the end of the year, you would always find him smiling and a book in his hand. At home, I’d see him coming down the street and run inside to grab a whiteboard. We’d spend an hour on my porch together working on math. His only complaint was when I would have to go back inside. That’s success to me.

I pretend I don't like hugs from Fiona
I pretend I don’t like hugs from Fiona

I work hard to instill this individual attention with each student. Every morning, each student in my class is greeted with a handshake. I welcome them into my classroom and ask how their weekend or night was. I also insist that they ask me how mine was. Not for some egotistical desire, but for them to develop good interpersonal skills. Some students asked for hugs instead of handshakes, and I generally would aquest to their request. Former students came in this year expecting the handshakes to continue. Other former students write letters back and forth to me. These are the long lasting bonds that make teaching worth it.

Nicknames are a big deal in my classroom too. Some are as simple as their last name, but others get more complicated and involved as “Fern,” “Winggirl,” “Nissan,” or “The Great and Powerful Polkasaurus Rex.” Each nickname stems from a personal connection I have with the student. The other students may not know the reasoning behind the names, but they love their own nicknames and each other’s. By the end of the year, you would be hard pressed to find peers referring to each other by their given name. I was even assigned two nicknames by the students: “Big Dog” and “King B.” I’m not complaining about either one!

Each student also has a classroom job. This serves a dual purpose; it allows me to escape banal tasks and makes each student feel responsible for the well-being of the class. Each job, no matter how trivial it may seem, it’s vital to the smooth running of the class.

Laser tag for Branden's birthday
Laser tag for Branden’s birthday

Often times, I spend my weekends going to sporting events to support my students. I try to make it to as many as I can and it is totally worth it. The students seem to appreciate every time I come. I also try to attend birthday parties when I am invited. Just last week I went to a laser tag birthday party. You would have thought I was One Direction walking in there. The student was so excited and I got to just have fun with him and all the other students. I’ve gone to campfires, birthday parties, movies, and even taken students to historical reenactments with me (and even run into some at battlefields!) Seeing students outside of school can paint them in a different light, and form a bond that just can’t be formed in the school building.

Pre-campfire selfie with Natasha
Pre-campfire selfie with Natasha

I implore you; don’t have the mindset of the teacher who said the above quote. We have to connect with our students. Education is changing, for better and for worse. One thing that needs to stay constant is the compassion teachers can provide. Some students don’t have strong support systems at home. We may be the only positive interaction they may have. Imagine the difference you can have if you connect with the students if you connect beyond the curriculum.

What’s your story?

How have you connected with students?

How do you plan to in this upcoming year?




Justin Birckbichler is a fourth-grade teacher at Hilda J. Barbour Elementary School in Front Royal, VA. He has been teaching fourth grade since 2013, and also serves on his district’s autism services improvement team and Google Educator Consortium. He earned a Master of Science in Curriculum and Instruction from Western Governors University and is a Google Certified Educator: Level 1 and 2. He is a very connected educator, blogging at, tweeting @MrBTeacher, and co-hosting the Eduroadtrip podcast. He enjoys a student-led classroom with a high degree of purposeful technology integration, in addition to collaborating with parents to best meet all learning needs.

This post was republished with permission from the author.


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